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Dear reader, do you think you deserve better newspapers? Here's how

Print in its myriad forms -- source: Internet

One may proclaim that factors such as corporate ownership or paid news are the biggest enemies of print media. Bunkum. Its real enemy is, also the unlikeliest: its consumer or the price-conscious reader. The reader, who invariably makes no distinction between content and price and would not even bat an eyelid before switching to another brand simply if it costs a rupee less. Thanks to him, newspapers dread the prospect of raising their prices, fearing that it may drive him away to their competitors – even if it means facing an existential crisis, day-in, day-out

Even a high-school economics student would point out that if the selling price of your product is not even a third of its manufacturing cost, rest assured of a deep hole in the pocket. Be it the stockbroker at Dalal Street, the roadside vegetable seller or the dealer for the latest range of iWhat-nots, margins matter. Even if you are running a Ponzi scheme. Which is what ails Indian newspapers at large.

When the editor of the news portal Firstpost, R Jagannathan, in a not-so recent interview to Newslaundry's Madhu Trehan, stated that, barring a particular group, no other print media publication isn't making money he wasn’t pulling a prank. What he may have forgotten to mention is operating a newspaper brand in India is akin to maintaining the proverbial white elephant. This is despite the fact that India is one among the only two nations (China being the other) having growth potential for the print media.

The New Indian Express, when the 2-G scandal erupted 
Surprised? Well, chew on these figures. On an average it costs anywhere between 12-20 rupees to print a single copy of a newspaper; the selling price rarely exceeds 5-6 rupees. Newsprint prices, which is mostly imported (local production reportedly meets around 35 percent of requirement), have shown an upward trend; so have operating costs involving printing presses, distribution channels and staff salaries to name a microscopic few. The massive capital gulf has to be bridged with advertisements and a host of cost-cutting measures, if your daily is to even keep up with its day-to-day expenses, leave alone making a profit. And that, folks, opens a Pandora’s Box to any publication worth its salt.

Some of Bangalore's leading dailies
Newspaper advertisements can be categorised into two: government and private ads. Any newspaper will need a healthy mix of the two. While government ads – tenders, notices and those that accompany launch of special schemes or special occasions – in principle, involve minimal groundwork from marketing teams, they also generate lesser income. What may be of interest is the process of its allotment. In principle, government publicity departments set aside a sizeable percentage of their budget to an English and regional language newspaper each having maximum circulation (the intent is to reach out to a wide audience); the remainder is shared with others.

The process can, however, be tweaked at the whims and fancies of the ruling establishment, necessitating jugaad for a share of the revenue pie. Gestures such as toeing the line of the government and maintaining silence over its blunders can go a long way in ensuring a permanent entry in its good books. Usually the first casualty in such instances is the paper’s stance.

Alternately the powers-that-be can arm-twist any few publications that are critical of them. This is achieved by withholding advertisements to a particular newspaper – a gesture that can have debilitating effects on the latter. This is exactly what the erstwhile UPA-II regime did to Mumbai-headquartered DNA, when the paper did a smashing coverage of the Anna Hazare agitation. Its then editor, Aditya Sinha, wrote in an editorial of how Central government ads were stopped without any notice for ten days. He writes that its executives and editors, in an audience with then minister Ambika Soni, were asked to “introspect” on their coverage of the issue. Following the ‘warning’, the ad-flow resumed. It is that easy to bring even a reputed newspaper brand to its knees. For those media outlets that buckle down to the government’s pressure, a quid-pro-quo, in the form of “publicity material for positive coverage”, is signed. 

Insurance for the publication and the ruling dispensation could never have gotten easier. To those in doubt over whether we are a banana republic, this should serve as clarification in the affirmative. 

Dear reader, wake up and smell the coffee -- we no longer live in the pre-1971 era when the Indian Express (undivided) went on the warpath with Indira Gandhi for her dictatorial tendencies, faced her wrath and emerged gloriously. Which is why to even suggest that we can expect a similar confrontational tone from the media today can be delusional.

As for private advertisements, they have heralded a new phase in the dynamics of 
publicity, giving birth to terms such as “sky-bus”, “jacket” or “cover-page” ads – depending on their position on the front page, which might cringe an old-school journalist (The front-page once occupied the sacrosanct status of THE ad-free page). As a thumb-rule, winning over private ads depends solely on marketing heft. This follows that papers with the means to invest heavily in marketing teams traditionally outscore those without it – and also earn large profits.
The proverbial white elephants?

This obstinate focus on balance-sheets by media houses comprises a little-known trend that is fast catching up: that of forcing journalists to source advertisments. A trend that has been largely restricted to suburban centres and smaller towns, this is an inevitable ticket to hell to the scribes. Their everyday contacts need to be put to use to win publicity material, often at cut-throat prices. With the bargaining power now in the side of the advertisers, they seek perks, one of which is paying for the ads in installments. Default on the part of the advertiser will be recovered from the journalist’s salaries, driving them to penury. Needless to say, journalism is the biggest loser.

Ever wondered why the subject of circulation figures is painted with a perennial nebulous tinge? Most publications do not want to print additional copies for fear of burgeoning expenses. With plateaued revenues, they would even prefer to cut back on the copies – more the better. Circulation indices are generally the domain of the market leaders, the others can merely sit back and watch. While they would certainly not admit it in public (as it would drive advertisers away) terms need to be invented to explain the same in a round-about manner, and impart a positive feel to it.

Now you know how to countenance an advertisement by a media group stating that it has scaled the peaks in segments of circulation.

The moral for readers lies in developing willingness to pay more for the paper that they subscribe to. In doing so, there is a strong opportunity for the print media to improve its quality, become independent and cleanse of all its malaises.

Thankfully, there have been international precedents to emulate.

Existential crises waiting in the wings
If publications such as the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times have credibility it is largely because they have not been forced to keep their prices down (yes, their circulation figures may be a fraction of their Indian counterparts; the fact that they are institutions of repute cannot be questioned). They have staved off criticism every time their subscription charges went up.

So, dear reader, next time your newspaper effects a hike, don't grumble. It may be their last-ditch attempt at survival.

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